Richard Florida on “Every Single Human Being is Creative”

The most recent column by Richard Florida in the Globe and Mail triggered a small storm of confusion and vitriol by commenters on Globeandmail.com. Some context from the article:

I recalled those Saturdays recently when I had my hair cut in Toronto. It turned out that the hairdresser, a stylish young man in his late 20s or early 30s, was once a resident of Birmingham, an upscale suburb of Detroit that I knew well because my wife lived there when we met. Without thinking, I said, “My wife used to get her hair done in Birmingham; what salon did you work in?” “I wasn’t a hairstylist then, man. I worked for General Motors,” he said. “Really?” I said, trying to dig myself out of a hole. “What plant did you work at?” “Plant?” came his reply. “I didn’t work in a factory — I’m a mechanical engineer and I worked on new product development.”

My jaw dropped. This man had quit a high-paying job in a good company so he could cut people’s hair. He had left the creative class because it wasn’t creative enough for him and had gone into a service industry to express his creativity.

Commenters were confused and took Florida to task for mixing the idea of a creative class with the idea that we are all creative. No question, there are tensions between these ideas and I think Florida himself would acknowledge them. The language is slippery. Many people who cite Florida haven’t read him fully, and don’t pickup on this second idea in his work at all.

It is a problem that is partially of Florida’s own making by emphasizing the word “class”. By drawing a huge circle that puts starving artists living in poverty and investment bankers in the same economic class, we lose some key distinctions that are beyond industry and occupational classifications. I argue that to understand who the creatives are, we need to look at another level of analysis: that of values.

There are a set of creative values that tend to be held by creative people. Our companies, industries, economies and societies have for too long ignored those values as frivolous – or a necessary evil when working with creative teams on ad campaigns. As the cultural/brand/design value of products and services in the economy increases relative to functional value, the values held by those that create culture are increasingly difficult to ignore. The group of people who hold this set of values (25% of the U.S. population) is the subject of The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World, by Paul H. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson. Cultural Creatives share values that distinguish them from Traditionalists and Modernists. I just picked up the book and look forward to digging deeper.

I believe further insight into what is emerging can be seen by combining Florida’s economic lens with Ray and Anderson’s values lens. It is the combination of these two ideas plus the impact of enabling web technologies that I’m interested in exploring in what I call open creative communities.

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